Legislator: Taxpayers get bad deal from universities

State Rep. Bob Genetski doesn’t have many fans at Michigan’s public universities. As chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, Genetski, R-Saugatuck, has been an outspoken critic of how universities spend money -- and a leader in the movement to reform the state’s higher education funding formula. A Bridge analysis found that Michigan families pay more to attend the state’s public universities than families in most other states pay to attend their public universities. Genetski, who holds a master’s degree in education from Grand Valley State University, spoke to Bridge Magazine about college costs, and what can be done about them.

Bridge: Michigan’s public universities have higher average net costs per student than public universities in most other states. Why is that?

A: Part of the reason is our budget challenges. If you look at the 10-year trend, we’ve cut funding to the higher ed by about 31 percent; during the same time period, tuition and fees rose by 110 percent.

Bridge: What is the impact on the state of those higher costs?

A: It takes an awful lot of the money out of the private sector and throws it into the public sector. In addition, it continues to keep money out of the private sector because we have kids who graduate with $24,000 in debt. Instead of buying cars or buying homes, they’re paying student loans.

Bridge: It costs half as much for a North Carolina family to send a child to UNC as it takes for a Michigan family to send a child to U-M. Does that mean that North Carolina values higher education more than Michigan?

A: What strikes me is, North Carolina (is) not as friendly to labor. I’ve been told professor salaries are … within a similar range. But I don’t know what their support staff makes there compared to here.

Bridge: Has Michigan made a conscious policy choice to have college paid for by individual families, as opposed to by the state?

A: We’re not saying we don’t care about higher education. But we’re coming out of the worst recession in the state’s history. There are only so many places we can cut, and higher ed happens to be one of those.

It happens also to be one where, as soon as you cut it, (universities) can turn around and, instead of looking inward for legitimate cuts, increase tuition. They should be looking inward first, second and third -- and only then taking a hard look at tuition.

Bridge: Universities say the current system, with decreasing state funding and increasing student costs, is unsustainable. Do you disagree?

A: Taxpayers can’t keep funding the system as it operates now. We’ve got at least four of those major universities with a six-year completion rate below 40 percent. Meanwhile, we have some jobs that can’t be filled because they can’t find the graduates. Do we need 14 colleges of education (among the state’s 15 public universities), turning out teachers when the economy isn’t asking for teachers?

When you talk to Joe Taxpayer, there’s sympathy for students, but not much sympathy for universities. They go on any college campus and they always see building cranes and top-of-the-line stuff. Parents tell me universities don’t make a strong effort to make cuts. Taxpayers deserve better.

Bridge: It sounds as if you would cut university funding even more if it were your choice?

A: Everyone would like to raise funding, but there are changes that need to be made. If you look at the governor’s message on talent and education, he spoke a lot about the need for more (Science, technology, engineering and math) majors, as well as health care. We need to fund legitimate programs. We can’t keep turning out students trying out Polish-American studies.

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Thu, 01/12/2012 - 8:59am
This recent grad finds is amazing that a pro-free market legislator would be critizing an individual choice of major in a system that is realistically less than 20% tax payer funded. More importantly how can we really promote competition when we attempt to mandate how these independent institutions are operating. Perhaps a better system would be to fund each college bound student the same amount of state aid and allow the student to find the right program at the right price for their own needs.... this system would let market forces decide which programs are sucessful at which schools for a price that consumers (students) find to be a good value.
Thu, 01/12/2012 - 10:22am
Well, I don't have much sympathy with people who rack up 10's of $K of debt for majors with very few jobs available - BUT - I have even less with legislators who think "it could never happen to me" and want to raise the drawbridge to a better life behind them and their kids, and leave the next generation floundering - and this author seems to fit this profile rather neatly. As Derek Bok famously said, "if you think education is expensive, try ignorance." This attitude is working the ignorance approach for all it is worth - Michigan needs to fund MORE vocational and community college training really well, so that it is attractive for the people for whom this is the right choice, and also expand funding for universities that DIRECTLY SUPPORTS INSTRUCTION rather than new conference room furniture, additional administrators with huge salaries and fancy titles, new buildings, etc. It is amazing how litttle infrastructure you actually need to deliver information - but lets cut the extras, not the critical delivery. And yes, support staff are needed for that, so quit dumping on state employees Mr. Genetski, you are on the public dole too!
Thu, 01/12/2012 - 10:35am
Just another Republican legislator who would not raise taxes if his life depended on it. I used to vote consistently Republican, but no longer. They seem hellbent on cutting taxes and killing unions. And his last answer was a direct shot at a Liberal Arts education. Here's news for you, that "Liberal" is not the same as a political liberal. I am all for more science and tech, but that emphasis needs to start from the moment they enter kindergarten. Otherwise you will have a lot of empty classrooms in the science buildings. And a Liberal Arts education, even if your a science major, is essential to developing critical thinkers, something this interview proves is in short supply in the State House. I would love to see some streamlining of our university system to better match the job market. Do we really need to graduate four times as many teachers as there are available jobs, or three mor medical schools when the Legislature is cutting funding to residency programs? But that would take a Constitutional amendment, and I am sure no one has the guts to suggest that. Once you peel away as much waste as realistically possible, and you break all the unions, you still will not have saved enough money to significantly lower tuition. Creating jobs is not done by just lowering taxes, but investing in ourselves. What company will want to come to Michigan when our roads are crumbling and we don't value education?
Thu, 01/12/2012 - 11:50am
Representative Genetski states, "If you look at the 10-year trend, we’ve cut funding to the higher ed by about 31 percent; during the same time period, tuition and fees rose by 110 percent." The data published by Bridge contradicts this statement and shows that the rise in tuition and fees is near equal to the decline in state appropriations in the last 10 years. Who’s data are correct here? Genetski wants to know where the money should come from for financing higher education. The answer is the State Department of Corrections. We spend more on corrections than nearly every other state and less on higher education than nearly every other state. There’s a quid pro quo here. There are two types of people in our prisons: those I’m afraid of and those I’m just mad at. I don’t want to continue spending $35,000+ a year per state prisoner I’m just mad at. There are alternatives to prison that Michigan has not explored. Also, the minimum sentences for those I’m just mad at are generally way too long, particularly since study after study shows that there’s no relationship between length of sentence and recidivism. Representative Genetski, the answer to our higher education financing problem is in our prisons.
Thu, 01/12/2012 - 1:06pm
Maybe I'm the only one that agrees with republicans on this and I'm neither republican or democrat. As a society we have to stop feeding the monster as they are just as bad as our government-- the more money you give them, the more they will spend! Look at some of these University Coaches and how much they are paid!! Why should I as a tax payer have to help fund their multimillion dollar salary? Not only that everyone else seems hell bent on taking pensions away from private and public sector workers but public University professors get to keep theirs!? Why is that? Some of you guys need to look at the facts and stop being sheep! College costs are becoming like Health Care and something needs to be done. Every College campus I have been on looks like Las Vegas with their fancy buildings and constant updates. There is no need for that in order to study your area of education. There was an audit done on some of these Universities and how much there "board of directors" made and it was quite shocking.. I know MSU had several that were close to a 1/2 million a year. Not bad for 8 months out of the year!
Darrick Swanson
Thu, 01/12/2012 - 1:12pm
Rep. Genetski, It's easy to say that college funding ought to be based on number of graduates that complete a degree within 6 years, STEM programs offered, and/or tuition that compares with national averages; many would agree. But how do we do this? I'm all for measureable objectives attached to college funding; rather than a blank check. When will our leaders in Lansing define these objectives in a House or Senate Bill that rewards universities meeting/exceeding said objectives? It's disappointing that this wasn't included in the article above.
Mark Putnam
Thu, 01/12/2012 - 1:24pm
This is an excellent article and a good explanation about the problem with high education. It costs too much and we are graduation people with degrees that are not needed in the work place.
Thu, 01/12/2012 - 3:58pm
I'm wondering if it makes sense to stop directly funding our 15 state universities. Instead, give instate students vouchers that could be used at any of these 15 schools. The vouchers would be merit based and need based, not the needs of the student, but the needs of taxpayers and businesses in the State of Michigan. For example, suppose the state has a shortage of IT skills, which I think it currently has. The annual voucher for a student who majors in computer science might range from $190 to $380 per credit completed depending on performance: $190 for the student who earns a 2.5 in the course and $380 for the 4.0 student. $380 per credit is about the current instate cost of tuition, fees and books. The vouchers would be awarded after the fact, so that the course grade and credits completed become factors. The vouchers can be used only for tuition and fees paid to one of the 15 state schools. When the taxpayers have more graduates than they need, such as some K-12 education majors, then the vouchers offered would be less, maybe $95 for some K12 education credits for the 2.5 student and $190 per credit for the 4.0 student. There may be other ways to tweak the system, like paying less per credit before graduation and the balance per credit after graduation. The system could used for both undergraduate and graduate programs. A similar system could be designed for vouchers used at state financed community colleges. The system may be counter cyclical, paying less and accumulating funding during good financial times and paying more and reducing the fund's balance during recessions. There may still be student financial need based grants and loans to cover costs not covered by the vouchers or costs incurred before the vouchers are issued, but the voucher system would not take student financial need into consideration. The system would be designed to serve the markets: the students who purchase education services, the taxpayers who pay for the services and the Michigan companies and organizations that benefit from educated workers. It would be a dynamic system, driven by both student merit and the state's needs. The system would also provide incentive for state colleges to gear their programs to the needs of taxpayers, students and business in Michigan. The system would introduce competition for students among the 15 schools. For example, EMU might offer lower tuition to a K-12 education major to attract students, while the (currently) higher rated MSU program might charge more. Colleges may decide to adjust the tuition charged for a course to the course's market value (determined in part by the what the voucher would pay) rather than staying with the same per credit cost for all courses. Since the vouchers potentially serve all the state's college students, not just students in financial need, the system would be more likely to get voter support. The voucher system would be administered by the State of Michigan Department of Education -- it would give them something useful to do.
Thu, 01/12/2012 - 4:27pm
@Dan: Unfortunately, college sports funding tends to be separate from the general fund of the university. Although I do agree with your point that they are overpaid. Also, there isn't an incentive for colleges to lower prices because there's always a family willing to pay what it takes to make sure that the kid gets the "best education". It's not like there's a lack of students trying to get into college. We can't keep claiming that we want a Public University system; then, turn around and keep those who can't afford it out because they can't get the assistance that they need to go to school. We can't keep pricing lower to middle income kids out of an education. I've stopped giving money to my alma mater because if they can afford to send me brochures for events that I can't afford to go to, then they have plenty of money coming in. It's about priorities and it really doesn't seem like the priority is the kids.
Thu, 01/12/2012 - 4:58pm
The two great trouble areas in our economy are health care and education---the costs continue to move higher at rates well above inflation. Is this any great mystery? Government subsidies and support are drawing more resources into these areas of the economy--at increasingly greater costs--with the questionable belief that society benefits from more college graduates. The only way to slow down the rate of tuition growth is to curtail government help--let students absorb more of the cost of their education. Incoming college students will only benefit from learning the hard economic lesson early in life---the 15 schools will get the picture only when students start walking away from them.